The recent Channel 4 drama “I am Nicola” sought to portray the dynamics of a couple, Nicola and Adam, with a serious imbalance of power in their relationship. I stumbled across this programme by chance and after around 20 minutes of viewing time, I turned to my husband and said “I think this is about coercive control”. A quick scan of the TV guide confirmed that this was indeed the central theme so hats off to the script writers and to the actors.

As the programme advances, Adam’s behaviour around and towards Nicola started to take a more sinister turn and we realise it is not a “one off”. We hear Nicola apologising to Adam for “just being me” and Adam’s “sympathetic” response, which was laced with subtle criticisms (“you’re just very sensitive”, “you let things bother you too much and get all het up”). Adam’s jealousy becomes apparent; at Nicola’s gym leggings; at her plans to go to the pub for a work mate’s birthday, as he manipulates her into cancelling (“It’s not like a 30th or anything?”). There are instances of Adam “gaslighting” Nicola. As the viewer, I began to feel increasingly uncomfortable as the abuse unfolded before my eyes.

As a family lawyer, I was pleased to see this form of abuse being put under the spotlight and I sincerely hope that it may at least help some victims watching it (female or male) find the courage to seek help.

Abuse does not always leave a visible bruise. It does not always manifest itself physically and coercive control, where a person with whom you are personally connected repeatedly behaves in a way which makes you feel controlled, dependent, isolated or scared, is indeed such an example. In Nicola’s case, we see Adam isolate her from her friends and family; repeatedly putting her down (often subtly); controlling what she wears; and threatening to kill himself if she leaves him. The absence of physical harm renders this abuse no less serious.

Whilst controlling and coercive behaviour is a criminal offence, as family lawyers, we can see allegations of such behaviour being made in family court proceedings (in both divorce and children proceedings) without concurrent criminal proceedings. Some victims may feel unable to pursue criminal allegations (for example, it may be financially disastrous for the family if the alleged perpetrator receives a criminal conviction or the higher criminal burden of proof may not be satisfied). In such circumstances, there are routes within the family courts that seek to protect victims of domestic abuse; namely non-molestation orders and occupation orders under the Family Law Act 1996. However, individuals affected should seek advice from both family and criminal law perspectives to ensure they are taking the steps best suited to them and with their safety and wellbeing in mind. Sometimes, there may be concurrent proceedings in both the family courts and the criminal courts. The relationship between criminal and family law proceedings in such cases is considered in more detail in our previous blog.

Practitioners, experts, police officers and the judiciary are, thankfully, becoming more alive to the fact that abuse is not always physical. Attitudes and perceptions are changing, although there is still work to be done. Sometimes victims of controlling and coercive abuse do not realise they are being abused and the behaviour is normalised. I have worked with clients who have made the decision to start divorce proceedings, taking time to realise that they have been subject to controlling and coercive behaviour. It can be a real breakthrough moment when the realisation hits. It can also be extremely devastating and it is crucial that individuals seek support for it.

If you are a victim of controlling and coercive behaviour, there are many organisations which offer support - the National Centre for Domestic Violence, Women’s Aid, ManKind Initiative to name but a few. Therapists and counsellors with experience of the effects of such behaviour can be invaluable sources of support, in addition to and not in replacement of any friends and family who are offering support too. And where divorce and/or children proceedings are relevant, seeking the advice of solicitors with experience in these areas can be a big step in what will hopefully prove to be a restorative journey to recovery and resolution. As Nicola came to realise - “this isn’t what love should feel like”.